Making liqueurs - the basics
With all of the liqueur/gin recipes on the website, the alcohol you could use can interchange between vodka/gin and even whisky, rum or tequilla. It really is down to your own preffered taste and preference. There are however two things to consider;
1) Would you drink the 'base alcohol' on its own? If you are making sloe gin and you are using gin that you do not like or is not a good quality, why use it? The end product will still have the qualities of the gin so there is no hiding from it. Use a 'base' alcohol' that you are going to enjoy anyway, that does not neccesary mean expensive, if you enjoy a decent but cheap bottle of gin/vodka etc then use that, so long as you like it.
2) 40% ABV (alcohol by volume) should be used in my opinion, so that rules out using certain brands that are 37.5% ABV. Why? Well because when you are infusing fruit in to alcohol and adding sugar, the effective ABV is going to be much lower, think of all the juice coming out of the damsons or blackcurrants that is going to 'dilute' the alcohol. When making damson gin for example, you could use a 700ml bottle of gin, but end up with 1100ml of damson gin, the addition of the sugar and juice from the fruit has diluted the gin.
You may think, well big deal a few % ABV is not going to make a difference, but actually it might. When we make our damson gin it usually ends up at around 24-25% ABV, if we had used at 37.5% ABV base, added more sugar and if the fruit had been juicier than normal then we could end up with a 18-19% ABV damson gin, which is not enough to preserve it for a length of time (years - for months it will be fine). 20% ABV is where it is thought the cut off for alcohol remaining as a preservative or not, above it and you don't need to add anything to keep bacteria or fungi from growing, lower than 20% ABV and you may need to add sulphites to ensure it keeps, like wines do etc.
Planning on drinking all the bottles straight after it is made? Then this problem does not really exist for you then, planning on leaving it to mature another year? This is when you may find it starts to become mouldy.
All of our recipes for liqueurs require the addition of sugar, in most cases we will us organic cane sugar, but white granulated sugar is fine too. You could experiment and use other sugars such as brown, Demerara, agave nectar, honey etc, all will give their own unique flavour. That could be a problem though, making sloe gin with brown sugar could mean all you can taste is the strong flavours of the brown sugar and not the sloe, the sugar becomes to over-powering. Generally I would advise to keep to a 'tasteless' sugar as what you really want is the addition of sweetness, but not to take away from the flavour you are infusing. Use other sugars when the plant/alcohol flavour would benefit from it.
The other thing to consider with sweetness is how much. I have a sweet tooth so I prefer liqueur with slightly more sugar than slightly less, however you can do what you like, have a very sweet tooth then add a little more, don't like sweet things, add a little less. The amount of sugar can always be increased until you get to the desired sweetness, it can't be taken away, so it is best to go under and add more until you get the sweetness you desire.
It is best to add a little sugar when you begin infusing the botanicals and the alcohol when making a liqueur, the sugar helps to break down the plants and we find it gives it a more rounded feel than if you did not add sugar at the start. That maybe 50g just to get things rolling at the end, when you know exactly how much sugar you have used in the final product then next year just add that amount at the start.
In most cases the gins/liqueurs most people will make will require the addition of fresh fruit, e.g damsons, sloes, plums etc and the juices from these is what makes the amazing flavours to the drink. Sometimes we use fresh flowers like rose petals or pineappleweed and these infuse their scent without adding any juice. Sometimes you can used dried botanicals, like lavender (you could use it fresh) or dandelion root etc, these botanicals are usually strong smelling but don't add any juice to the alcohol. One thing to consider though will be whether the botanical will create a bitter flavour. Orange, lemon and lime peels will add flavour but also make the alcohol quite bitter (which maybe a desire effect), dandelion root, burdock root and hogweed seeds also add a lovely aroma, but make it bitter. The is a fine line with making a liqueur with these plants and making your own bitters (something I will show you how to do soon). Check out our #foragin guide to some plants to find out if they will be bitter or not.
How long to leave the botanicals to infuse? That really is up to you. As a guide I usually leave fresh fruit a minimum of 3 months a maximum of 6 in the alcohol to infuse, so if you are making your damson gin on the 1st September then I would not decant it until the 1st December. Flowers like rose petals only take around 24 hours to infuse and dried roots maybe a few days or a week max. We once made a Hop liqueur and after 30mins it was far too strong a flavour, around 15mins was probably as long as the hops needed to infuse as much flavour as we wanted but it was too strong.
WORKING OUT ABV
formulas for working it out.
Info on fresh vs pasteurised, plus info on how long liqueurs will last.